yours, tiramisu

you can't write a good story following a formula

I had my first tutoring session last week. My student Ella is a bright high-schooler looking to compete in both creative and analytical writing competitions. From what I can tell, she has a good grasp of mechanics and picks up new concepts quickly. The main problem I can see is that she can't come up with stories for creative writing.

Thea, Ella's last tutor, tried solving this the way our tutoring program recommends: by trying to reverse engineer a good story. She made Ella come up with a theme and motifs and symbols, then try to build a story from those components.

I understand the appeal of this approach — after all, if you include the hallmarks of a good story, it might seem to follow that you'd have a good story. But I will not be using this reverse engineering technique in my classes if I can get away with it. You can't write a good story by following a formula. Hemingway didn't sit at his typewriter and decide what symbols or themes he wanted to include in his stories before writing them. He simply thought up a story; we the readers ascribe symbols and motifs to the story.

Don't take my word for it. In 1963 a 16-year-old high school student wrote to some great authors of the time asking them if they intentionally used symbolism. Their answers?

Question: Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?... If yes, please state your method for doing so. Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?

Jack Kerouac: "No."

Isaac Asimov: “Consciously? Heavens, no! Unconsciously? How can one avoid it?”

Joseph Heller: “Yes, I do intentionally rely on symbolism in my writing, but not to the extent that many people have stated... No, I do not subconsciously place symbolism in my writing, although there are inevitably many occasions when events acquire a meaning additional to the one originally intended.

Ray Bradbury: “No, I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to let the subconscious do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural."

John Updike: “Yes—I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction; you don’t seem to understand.”

Norman Mailer: “I’m not sure it’s a good idea for a working novelist to concern himself too much with the technical aspects of the matter. Generally, the best symbols in a novel are those you become aware of only after you finish the work.

Ralph Ellison: “Symbolism arises out of action... Once a writer is conscious of the implicit symbolism which arises in the course of a narrative, he may take advantage of them and manipulate them consciously as a further resource of his art. Symbols which are imposed upon fiction from the outside tend to leave the reader dissatisfied by making him aware that something extraneous is added.

Saul Bellow: “A 'symbol' grows in its own way, out of the facts.”

Richard Hughes: “[Consciously?] No. [Subconsciously?] Probably yes. After all, to a lesser extent, the same is true of our daily conversation—in fact, of everything we think and say and do.”

I like Ellison's approach the best. Symbols should arise naturally, though I don't see anything wrong with drawing them out once they've revealed themselves. But you should never, under any circumstances, try to craft a story from a recipe of motifs or symbols.

The problem remains: how do I help Ella come up with a good story? I've never been able to come up with compelling stories either. I got around that by never writing fiction, but for obvious reasons I can't tell her to just give up. My philosophy has always been that if you don't have a story, you shouldn't try to write one. This is the same reason I vehemently disagree with the idea that everyone should blog. I wish more people blogged, I really do. But if people don't have anything to say there's no reason to muddy up the waters.

Now if you have a story in you and simply struggle to get it out, that's another issue entirely. But if coming up with a story feels like squeezing orange juice out of a rock, it might serve you well to ask, why are you trying to write one in the first place? Are you truly writing to write? (Sadly, I suspect the answer for many of these students is no, that they're writing to win awards and prizes. But I hope in my heart of hearts that they at least enjoy the process.)

As always, any writing or teaching advice is greatly appreciated.

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